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Year After Fatal Germanwings Crash, New Preventive Measures Suggested

In this handout image supplied by the French Interior Ministry, search and rescue teams attend to the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus in the French Alps on March 25, 2015 near Seyne, France.
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In this handout image supplied by the French Interior Ministry, search and rescue teams attend to the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus in the French Alps on March 25, 2015 near Seyne, France.

Nearly a year after a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed an Airbus in the Alps, French investigators have released recommendations for world aviation bodies on how to avoid such an incident in the future.

The BEA investigation agency suggests, among other things, clearer guidelines for when doctors should set aside doctor-patient confidentiality for the sake of public safety and more flexibility for pilots to receive mental health treatment while continuing to fly.

The air accident investigators say that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who crashed the plane on March 24, 2015, had received a medical certificate declaring him able to fly in 2008. But in 2014 and early 2015, the pilot developed symptoms that "could be compatible with a psychotic depressive episode," Arnaud Desjardin of the BEA said at a press conference Sunday.

"Several private physicians had the information that the copilot was ill; some knew he was flying," Desjardin said through an interpreter. "But this information did not reach the airworthiness authorities, and did not reach his employer."

In fact, The Associated Press reports, Lubitz had consulted "dozens of doctors" in the weeks leading up to the crash — one of whom referred him to a psychiatric clinic. None of them reached out to authorities.

Under existing regulations, Desjardin says, it was Lubitz's responsibility to self-declare that he was struggling.

"This he did not do," Desjardin said.

In March of last year, Lubitz took control of the Airbus A320 when the pilot went to the restroom. Lubitz then locked the door to the cockpit. As the pilot pounded on the door and shouted to be let in, Lubitz set the altitude setting to its lowest option, steered the plane towards a mountainside and accelerated.

The resulting crash killed all 150 people on board.

BEA's investigation into the crash is separate from an investigation by French prosecutors, the AP notes. Where the prosecutors are looking to build a possible criminal case, BEA was looking for methods of preventing such crashes in the future.

One factor they identified: Doctors' concerns about violating Germany's strict confidentiality laws. While doctors are allowed to share otherwise-private information about patients for safety reasons, the fear of losing their jobs for a misjudged disclosure can keep information from being shared.

"BEA requests definition of clear rules to require health care providers to inform the authorities when a specific patient's health is very likely to impact public safety," Desjardin said.

Meanwhile, pilots also worry about losing their jobs if they reveal they are experiencing mental health issues. BEA recommends peer support programs to help pilots facing stigma about mental health — and allowing pilots to continue to fly while taking some antidepressants, to reduce the risk to a pilot's career if he or she discloses mental health issues.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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